The Barbie doll is one of the world’s best selling dolls, and is one of Mattel’s best known products. Since 1959, the Barbie has been an enormous source of revenue for the company. Backlashes against the fashion-conscious doll have been consistent in the wake of the Women’s Rights Movement, and Barbie dolls have received continual criticism for their portrayal of women.
Annoyed by the fact that most dolls were representations of babies, Ruth Handler, the wife of Mattel co-founder Elliot Handler, suggested an adult doll. Basing her concept on a similar German doll named Bild Lilli, Ruth Handler eventually convinced reluctant Mattel directors that a market existed for a fashion-based doll. In 1959, the Barbie doll was introduced at the American National Toy Fair.
The original doll came as a long-haired blond or brunette in a zebra-print swimsuit. Additional outfits were available for purchase, and meant to conform to current American fashion trends. In the first year of availability, over 350,000 Barbies were sold. Realizing the potential of the market, Mattel quickly began releasing companion dolls for Barbie, the first being her boyfriend, Ken. Other popular early friends included Barbie’s younger sister Skipper, and her best friend, Midge.
The controversy over Barbie dolls began almost immediately, as the dolls were considered sexually provocative and an unrealistic portrayal of female beauty. Statistics studies suggest that were a Barbie doll on a normal human scale, she would be five feet nine inches tall (1.78 meters), have bust-waist-hip proportions of 36-18-33 inches (91-46-84 cm) and have so little body fat she would be unable to menstruate normally. Additionally, some early Babies came with scales set to 110 pounds (49.8 kg), more than 30 lbs (13.6 kg) underweight for a woman of her height. In 1997, the Barbie doll was redesigned to have somewhat more realistic proportions, but critics still believe the doll can enforce harmful ideas about body image on impressionable young girls.
Another controversial issue in the Barbie doll world regards the introduction of ethnic versions of the doll. Critics complain that black, Hispanic and Asian Barbie’s show no real ethnic characteristics of their races, but instead simply have a different skin color. Saudi Arabia banned Barbie dolls in 2003, suggesting that the doll was a bad influence and did not fit the ideals of women in Islamic religion. Alternative lines of dolls have been released by other toy companies attempting to create more life-like dolls.
Barbie collecting has become a major hobby around the world. Early and rare editions of Barbie dolls bring high prices at auctions. One of the most expensive Barbie doll purchases took place at a London auction in 2006, when a doll called “Barbie in Midnight Red” was sold for $17,000 US Dollars (USD.)
Despite the raging controversies over Barbie’s affect on society, the doll remains a cultural icon and incredibly successful toy. Since the 1960s, she has provided a catalog of styles and trends of American fashion and ideals. Despite what some critics wish, the Barbie doll is an important part of Americana, and is likely to continue her famous lifestyle.